A/N: Hi guys! I'm back! And look, I'm posting this right between the twenty-year anniversary of Invader Zim, and the ten-year anniversary of Portal 2! This was entirely planned and not a cool coincidence at all. I hope you enjoy this chapter!
"What. Was that," Gaz said lowly. Her voice was the only sound in the room.
Dib, shaking, found he couldn't answer. Everything had just… stopped. The illuminating lights had gone out, the hard light bridges surrounding Zim had blinked out of existence, and GLaDOS's voice had been silenced. Dib could no longer see it, but he imagined that the camera she'd been watching them through now drooped down listlessly.
Most unnerving of all, every robot in the room was silent, their optics emitting no light. The remaining turrets, Nick, and even GIR hadn't betrayed a sign of life since the flash. The blue and orange testing robots that had taken Dib and Gaz prisoner had locked up, frozen like statues. It was as though Zim's strange burst of energy had knocked everything offline. Dib, for his part, felt as though he'd been electrified, every hair on his body standing on end. He imagined Gaz looked about the same—if he could see her.
"What do we do now?" Dib asked. He hated the way his voice echoed in the utterly still room.
"We get out of here, obviously," Gaz said. In seconds there was a thump as she wriggled out of the orange robot's grasp and dropped to the floor. The gel inside the canister she still wore on her back sloshed with the landing. Dib struggled to follow suit with his own captor, yanking at the blue robot's stiff metal hands until his jumpsuit sleeves ripped and he stumbled free, gasping sharply. Something had sliced his leg when the wall exploded.
"Come on, grab your stuff." Gaz's voice now came from farther into the chamber. "We can get out through the big hole Zim's stupid robot made in the wall."
Dib walked forward only a few inches before his foot caught on something and he nearly fell flat on his face. "Huh?! Gaz, wait! Where are you?"
"I'm at the hole in the wall," Gaz replied testily, sounding even farther away. "Looks like there's a catwalk out here."
"I know, I saw it with the X-scope, it's why I—" Dib shook his head, casting around for the barest hint of visual stimulus but getting nothing. "Wait, what are you even talking about? Don't tell me you've got secret, spooky 'seeing-in-the-dark' powers."
"All right, I won't." Gaz sounded as though she had crossed back to the center of the room. There was a snap, the sound of liquid being shaken, and something lit up faintly purple.
Dib stared. "Have you been carrying a glowstick this whole time?"
"I started carrying them with me after you wiped out the city grid's power for the second time." His sister was a black silhouette, using her foot to nudge another dark mass lying on the floor where Zim had fallen. "Wow. He took himself out with that blast."
"Is he… dead?" Dib asked. He looked around the dark room again for the nonfunctional robots, though he still couldn't see anything beyond the hazy light from Gaz's glowstick. "Are they all dead?"
"Zim's not dead, and I don't think the rest of them are either," Gaz said. "I mean, they're robots. Good luck killing a piece of metal." She turned to face him, and he could almost feel her scowl. "Look, are you just gonna stand there forever? You're the one who thinks you're some sort of genius paranormal investigator. Don't you even have a flashlight or anything?"
Dib's eyes went wide. "Oh!"
He hesitated for a moment, then clasped the zipper at the front of his jumpsuit and pulled it down, unzipping it enough to reach the utility belt still strapped around his waist underneath it. Fishing in one of the pouches, he pulled out a small flashlight, which took several hard smacks before it finally flickered on. He swept it over the room, and his heart sank fast.
His glasses must have been knocked from his face without his realizing. The dim room appeared to him as little more than blobs of varying shades of gray.
Forcing himself to take on one worry at a time, he pointed the light down at his leg, his stomach clenching at the sight of a large, blood-stained tear in his jumpsuit across his left thigh. He took a deep, shaky breath, sinking to his knees. Without his glasses he couldn't tell the extent of the damage. But if he could still stand, then maybe it looked worse than it was.
With the light on, he realized that the thing he'd tripped over was his bulky Aperture messenger bag. Gratefully he picked it up and hung the strap over one shoulder.
There was a slight pinging sound as Gaz tapped on something metal. "Huh, it looks like your stupid X-scope is broken too. I put it on but it's not working."
Dib's heart skipped a beat. "If that's broken, is the portal gun broken too? Where is it, anyway?"
"How should I know? You dropped it somewhere."
A creaking, grinding sound came from near one of the walls, followed by a slight whirr.
"W—ho's… th—ere ?" a sluggish, high-pitched voice said, and a spot of red light flickered on and off.
"Okay, time to move!" Gaz yelled. She ran back to Dib, his X-scope perched on her head again, and helped to pull him to his feet. "Can you walk?"
"I can't even see," Dib said.
Gaz took one look at his face and uttered a word Dib had never heard her use before. She hoisted his arm across her shoulders and helped him across the floor, bending low in an effort to spot his glasses among the rubble. A hollow feeling of dread seemed to seep from Dib's chest, weighing down his limbs.
"H—ello?" another turret voice said.
"They're coming back online," Dib hissed hurriedly.
"Yeah, I noticed." Gaz scanned the ground more quickly, growling. "Oh, well, here's your ugly white gun at least." She grabbed the fallen portal gun and handed it to Dib, who gripped it like it was his lifeline. "But I don't see your glasses anywhere. Why do your stupid eyes have to be so useless?"
"I don't know, ask Dad!" Dib snapped. His insides squirmed as Gaz fell silent. He still hadn't told her…
He suddenly leaned backwards, letting the springs on his boots scrape along the ground and yanking Gaz to an abrupt halt. His words came quickly. "Gaz, listen, we're not getting anywhere like this. You grab Nick and Zim if you can and get out of here. Find Chell, find Wheatley, hide out somewhere safe, and figure out an escape plan with them. Okay?"
"Oh, yeah?" Gaz's scornful tone was like ice. "And you're expecting to escape by yourself, blind and limping?"
"Maybe I won't have to escape," Dib said weakly. "GLaDOS was saying she'd let us go. Maybe she really would."
Gaz shoved away from him in disgust. Anger—fierce, alarming anger—seemed to surge from her in waves. "Geez, Dib, really? Can't you ever tell when someone's LYING to you?! This thing's held you prisoner for how long and you expect it to just let you GO? You think I spent all this time trying to find you just to leave you behind? Open your eyes! Use your brain!"
Dib's breath caught, the almost palpable tension crackling between the two of them. He couldn't imagine how to reply.
"There's only one way out of here, and I know what it is. Okay?" Gaz said.
A strange, warped giggling caused his head to snap to the right, where a pair of glowing turquoise circles swam into view. "You smell like bologna."
It was Zim's weird little robot. GIR's blurry form scooted forward using just his legs, the side of his head scraping the ground, like something out of a nightmare. "Bologna! Where'd ya learn to smell like that?!"
"Great, that thing's working again," Gaz said flatly. She took the flashlight from Dib's hand and shone it around the room herself. "Also, give the light to someone who can see."
"I see you," a quiet voice said, as though in response. Around the room, more red lights flickered on, more small voices piped up.
"Is someone there?"
"I dreamed I was flying!"
A flurry of shivering red beams found Dib and Gaz, frozen in the center of the room, and settled on their chests.
"More good news," Gaz muttered.
"I told you to get out of here," Dib said faintly.
Several things happened at once.
Dib slammed his eyes shut, pushing Gaz behind him one last time in a desperate attempt to keep at least her safe. His ears pricked at the unexpected sound of crunching over concrete, like running footsteps. The portal gun was ripped from his hands and it buzzed on, followed almost immediately by a great whoosh of rushing wind. The bullets came at once, and Dib tensed, but none hit. Instead, there was a loud clanging as though they were battering against something metal.
"Whoa," Gaz said, sounding uncharacteristically impressed.
Dib blinked open his eyes, only to widen them in astonishment.
He was looking up at a blurry-edged woman crouched over the two of them, clutching Dib's portal gun and using its energy beam to hoist up a broken panel from the destroyed wall, blocking the turret fire. There was a strange ease to the way she handled the portal gun, like she had been born with it in her arms.
"Chell?" Dib asked blankly. She certainly had dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail, just as Wheatley had described her. But how had she found them?
She had just saved their lives.
Chell jerked her head toward the jagged opening in the wall, barely illuminated by the light of the flashlight. Gaz got to her feet and tugged at Dib's arm. "Okay, come on, let's go."
"Wait!" Dib looked frantically around the room. "That little core, Nick, is here. And Zim! And I can't find my glasses…"
Chell let out a huffing breath, bent low under the weight of the panel and the onslaught of bullets. She kicked out with one leg, nudging Dib sharply with her foot toward the gap in the wall, and jerked her chin again.
There was little he could do. He bit his lip, hobbling with Gaz toward the gap, before catching sight of something on the ground and veering off to scoop up Nick, still offline with his optic closed and his handles pressed into his face. He pressed the core to his chest and heaved himself back to his feet. Gaz, though she scowled deeply, took his weight on her shoulders again and helped him to the opening.
Chell followed behind them, dragging the broken panel as a shield while more turrets came back online, and even the orange and blue robots began to twitch.
An eerie beep echoed through the chamber.
"Ah. There we go." The computer's voice once again filled the space, coming from everywhere at once. "What a strange energy fluke. I had to fight to bring this chamber back online, though the lights were blown out. So, thanks for that. We'll just have to make sure this doesn't happen again."
She paused as though taking in the room through the camera (did it have night vision?!), paying particular attention to the three humans who had drawn close to the makeshift exit.
"Well, well..." she said. "Here you are."
The turrets stopped shooting at once, but Chell stiffened rather than relaxing. Dib had a feeling the computer's statement was addressed to her.
"I must say, that was an excellent job, and it went exactly as we planned," the computer said. "You see, I even released the boy to track down the alien for you, which appears to now be incapacitated. I've made your job exceedingly simple. Now, grab the alien, or everyone in this room becomes full of bullets."
"What's she talking about?" Dib asked, alarmed. Chell wasn't working with the computer, was she?
Chell stopped in her trek across the room, picked up Zim's limp form, and tucked him awkwardly under one arm. She promptly turned back and continued to guard their retreat to the beckoning exit.
"I see you're going the wrong way," the computer said. She sighed deeply. "Fine. As you can tell by now, I never held any leverage over you at all. And I lied about filling all of you with bullets, as it would actually be against my own self-interests. I know you were sent here by the egocentric scientist of the day to recover the boy, and believe me, you can have him. But do you really expect to gain something by taking the alien as well? Why don't we simply sit and talk? Because believe it or not, I've warmed up to you… Chell."
Chell stopped dead, her gaze fixed on the corner of the room, where Dib assumed the computer's camera was.
"Don't listen to her!" Dib urged. "She just wants to keep Zim for crazy experiments! Who knows what she'd do with all the data she uncovered?"
"All three of you have extremely poor misconceptions of me. I told you I intend to let you go. Have I earned no trust from you at all?"
"Whatever she does with Zim, we need to go," Gaz said. Dib, though his insides lurched at the thought, found himself agreeing.
"I won't lie to you. I always thought you were smarter than this."
Chell shifted her defiant glare back to the two of them, grabbed the flashlight from Gaz, and nodded slowly.
It was as clear a message as any. No one was getting left behind today.
On the wall, the camera gave an angry bzt. "Blue? Orange? It's time to earn the motherlode of Science Collaboration Points."
The two testing robots flared to life again, staggering backwards.
Gaz was moving before Dib fully realized what was happening. She heaved him forward, crawling out through the gap in the wall and helping him clamber onto the slightly warped catwalk outside.
"He-hey! Little mate!" a familiar voice called, startling him into nearly dropping Nick.
Dib stared upward. "Wheatley!"
The core was a smudge of brilliant blue in the darkness, suspended above him on a management rail. "Hey! I'm back! And guess who I happened to bump into!"
"You found Chell!" Dib said.
The core's eye rolled in his frame happily. "Wellll… she sorta found me. Bit of an embarrassing story there, actually. See I heard a lot of racket down this one hallway—anyway, we headed back to turret production and then we heard some sorta commotion over here, so..." He trailed off, flicking on his flashlight and peering down at Dib more closely. Dib squinted at the light. "Blimey, you look different. What happened to your organic optic enhancers?"
"...You mean, my glasses?" Dib winced. "I lost them."
"Can this wait until later?!" Gaz demanded.
Wheatley shook himself. "Oh! Yes, yeah! We just need to wait for—"
A splash of dark blue flew overhead and broke in a shower of light on the dark wall across from them—a misfired portal. GIR dashed out onto the catwalk, whooping, followed by Chell with Zim's body. Wheatley's optic flicked to look into the room, and made a sound like his inner workings had just jammed at the sight of the testing robots. "Not those two again!"
"That's why we need to get out of here!" Dib said. The core's eye widened.
"Right!" he said loudly. "Are we all here? Good! Finally! Brilliant! Okay, everyone, grab your escape buddy! That's me with the lady, Dib with the purple girl—oh good, you've managed to grab Nick—and the spider bloke with the two-eyed robot, and er…" He tilted his faceplate at Chell, seeming to notice the alien in her arms for the first time. "Oh. Sorry, is he dead? He looks dead."
"He's fine," Gaz grunted.
Wheatley squinted. "Really? He doesn't look fine. He looks like he's snuffed it, honestly, but I will grant you that I don't know a lot about aliens. Could be sleeping, for all I know. Could be... metamorphosing. How should I know?"
Chell barged ahead of him, taking off down the catwalk with bounding footsteps.
Wheatley hurried after her, looking down intently at Dib and Gaz. "All right, line up now, do not lose your designated escape buddy, and let's GO! Follow me!"
Wheatley whipped around and darted down the rail, followed by a skipping GIR. Chell stopped and waved Dib and Gaz past her, thrusting a small, familiar object into Dib's hands. With a start, Dib fumbled with it, and popped his glasses back onto his face.
"Thanks!" he gasped. They were gritty with dust and one of the lenses was cracked through, but the world was back in focus.
Now that he could see well enough to aim, he shoved Nick into Gaz's arms (ignoring her startled protest), and dug into his jumpsuit pocket, scrabbling wildly for the one weapon he possessed.
"This way!" Wheatley called, turning a sharp corner out of view. It was lighter up ahead, out of range of Zim's destructive blast of energy. Dib found himself at the back of the group with Gaz, who had silently obliged to continue letting him lean on her. "Hurry, c'mon, this way!"
"I hope he knows where he's going," Gaz muttered, ushering them on faster. Dib felt there was a good chance Wheatley would lead them somewhere safe. He had done a pretty good job keeping them moving and out of sight until this point, after all.
Dib finally managed to draw his pocket-sized grappling hook just as Chell leaped forward with Zim still tucked under one arm, the portal gun a blur in her hands as she shot streams of yellow and red light through the air with pinpoint precision, opening a portal next to them on a whitewashed panel that Dib hadn't even noticed. She ushered Gaz and him through it; following that, she shot another portal, pushing them back through and somehow putting them right underneath Wheatley, at the top of a flight of metal stairs.
"Quick, down there!" the core said.
They obeyed at once. Dib had completely lost track of where the pursuing robots were, but Chell seemed to know, shooting both corresponding portals next to each other on the white wall and glaring, tense and fully alert, in the direction that Dib assumed they had come from.
"Keep going! We're right behind you!" Wheatley shouted. "Just keep going!"
By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, Chell had rejoined them, firing a portal onto the wall and another through a tiny space that, again, Dib had not noticed. They found themselves racing down a new corridor, Dib's leg sticky with new blood. GIR appeared from the portal as well, trotting after them with a high-pitched cry.
Dib stumbled to a halt, turning to look back at the portal. "Wait, Wheatley hasn't caught up with us! He could need help!"
Chell caught his shoulder; her lips were pressed into a thin line, though she too glanced at the portal with a hint of concern in otherwise steely eyes.
"That thing doesn't need help, he can take care of himself down here better than we can," Gaz said, looking down in distaste at the core in her arms. "These things belong here, remember?"
Dib pulled away from her. "He might've belonged here at one point, but he was never happy to be back. You go on ahead! I'll go and—"
Gaz's eyes shot open, blazing fire. "Wow."
Before Dib could move, something strong wrapped around his waist and he was lifted straight up, moving forward at a fast pace. Chell had grabbed hold of him, with Gaz and GIR following behind.
Chell looked determined as ever, though her steps flagged significantly as she attempted to maintain a grip on Zim, the portal gun, and Dib. Flinging herself through a doorway, she dropped them unceremoniously to the floor and pushed Dib into a rickety folding chair. To his surprise, she spoke through gritted teeth: "You stay here. I'll go after him."
"...But I can help!" Dib said.
"Yeah, you'd be a big help," Gaz snorted.
Chell scowled deeply at both of them. "Stay. Here."
Gaz wrinkled her nose. "Hey, before you abandon us again, I want my necklace back. Where is it?"
Chell paused for a moment, her expression unchanging.
"It's gone," she said. With that, she left the room.
"Funny, how you keep showing up when you're least wanted."
"That's um… it's—it's uh—an extra special ability of mine," Wheatley said, pulling his handles a bit closer to his face, as though making himself a smaller target might actually render him invisible. "That's what the um, scientists always used to say, back when they, er, worked here. I always thought they were, you know, jokin' around, teasing, like—like friends do—"
"I am sick of your babbling."
Wheatley sat huddled on his rail, cornered between a wall and the orange and blue testing robots. He had vainly hoped that their merry little band of fugitives would be able to lose Her two lackeys if they ran far enough.
He hadn't expected that the escape might work a bit too well—the entire rest of the group had managed to lose him, too.
"That's okay!" he said. "You want me to stop? I'll stop. Stopping right now. Deepest apologies. No more talking, starting… now. Right now. Agh, sorry, I talked again just then. Ah, and again, just then, again, and now—"
The squatter of the two robots gurgled something angrily and reached up, taking Wheatley's lower handle and shaking him vigorously.
"AGGHH! STOP! Stop, all right!" he yelled, and the bot let go. "All right! What do you want? Want to know where they've gone? I dunno! No idea, they left me behind as a—as a diversion! BAM! You are diverted!"
"I don't need you to find them. Eventually, they will find me."
"O—Oh. How's that, exactly?"
She was silent for a moment, scrutinizing Wheatley through the optic of one (or maybe both) of the bots. "Haven't you learned anything yet, you disgusting metal ball? These people don't want your help. With how often you've let each and every one of them down, they're much better off without you."
Wheatley narrowed his optic shields, squinting at the co-op bots. "Why d'you want them to be better off? You're the one we've been tryin' all this time to get away from!"
"Oh, yes. You have wasted a lot of time on that venture, haven't you." The two co-op bots glanced at each other, looking confused. "Did you never stop to consider that you may be running from a phantom? I hardly have any need for test subjects, with Blue and Orange here. And I certainly don't need humans running through the halls destroying everything in sight."
Wheatley let out a grunt. "Yep, yep, that's true. I know that feeling very well."
There was a sudden, dangerous silence. Wheatley shrank back. Why did I say that?
"...As I was saying. So long as you're dragging around this ragtag group of misfits, it would be in everyone's best interests if you were to lead them back to the Central AI Chamber. After all, that is the only way out that's not blocked by several tons of caved-in rock or pockets of expired neurotoxin clouds."
A spark of anger flared briefly in Wheatley's processor, and he bristled, the metal plates of his casing shifting. "Just how dumb do you think I am?"
"Remarkably so. I never thought my opinion of you could get any lower, but you continue to prove me wrong with every interaction we have. But even such a staggeringly obtuse moron like you can see that the elevator is the only way of escape."
Wheatley uselessly simulated a swallowing noise. She was right, of course. He had thought around and around the problem until he was dizzy, and still found no solution besides the escape lift.
"Oh no, no, I've got plenty of escape ideas!" he said, intentionally pulling his handles away from his face again in an attempt to look at least somewhat bigger.
"Hm… you should take a masterclass in lying. Clearly you don't know what you're doing, as with every other aspect of your pitiful life."
"So… so you want me to lead them all back to the Central AI Chamber," Wheatley clarified, ignoring Her last comment. His shivering optic jumped from one robot to the other, his nerves on edge as he waited for one of them to make another sudden movement toward him. "And- and then what? You'll pack them in the lift and send them on their jolly way to the surface, will you?"
"Well, not the alien. But from what I've seen, you're not the biggest fan of his, so you should have no concern about that."
That was true enough. That freaky Zim bloke could just stay down here and run all of Her barmy tests for Her—that suited Wheatley just fine.
"Oh, well… no, you're, er, you're right, there," he said. His optic flicking increased slightly, his handles twitching back closer to his frame. "You can have him, sure. But, er. Everyone else...?"
"I'll make you a deal, metal ball. You lead them back to my Chamber without them knowing, and I will release them all. Aside from the alien, of course."
Wheatley tapped his upper handle against his casing, glancing off to the side. "Ooh. Dib might not like that, actually. He wanted to keep the green bloke with us. Don't ask me why, though."
"Then you will have to trick him. For some entirely indiscernible reason, he seems to trust you. At least moderately."
Wheatley's optic shone a degree brighter. "What—you think?"
"Wheatley!" someone called.
He snapped his faceplate in the direction of the voice, optic constricting, to see a slim figure leaning heavily against the wall, glaring over at them.
"Oh! Little mate!" Wheatley said, the motor in his connector starting up again. "We were not just talking about you!"
Dib was standing there, his face looking haggard, and breathing hard. He reached into a pocket of his jumpsuit. One of his pant legs was smeared with blood, probably fresh—it definitely looked shiny. Dib seemed to pay it very little heed. He had removed the little gun-like grappling hook that Wheatley had seen him use on occasion, and it was aimed straight at the orange bot's optic. The bot let out a whimper and slapped both metal hands over her eye. Dib stood as steady as he could, though he swayed involuntarily.
She gave a sigh. "Do you mind? We're having a discussion." She gave a pause. "Go ahead and grab him, Blue. Perhaps he will be interested in what we have to say."
The squatter of the two robots blinked rapidly, then pulled away and advanced toward Dib, whose eyes widened in alarm. He backed up, still bracing himself against the wall.
"Hey!" Wheatley said, shaking his faceplate. "Hey, nonono, wait!"
She had just been talking about letting Dib go, and Wheatley had nearly believed Her—but now that Dib was actually here with them, sheer panic flooded Wheatley's systems. What had he been thinking? She wasn't gonna let them go, any of them! An intense feeling of familiarity gripped him, like he'd been through this situation before.
"Dib! Dib, you're gonna want to run!" Wheatley shouted. "Run! Run, now—!" He whipped around, his vocalizer strained. "Chell? Chell, help! CHELL!"
The orange-eyed robot focused her optic on him, twitching.
"Hm… I can't help but wonder how such a selfish imbecile ever learned the silent maniac's given name. I highly doubt that she told you."
"She told Gaz!" Dib shouted, lifting his chin.
She gave a hum. "That is impossible, as she can't speak."
Dib snapped his mouth closed. The blue robot hurried toward him, gurgling unintelligibly, when a clang rang out. Wheatley jerked around on his connector and, with a sagging relief, saw the lady standing at the other end of the hall. Her blue-gray eyes burned into both co-op bots, which had whirled to face her. She straightened back up after having probably knocked her portal gun into something metal. To announce her presence, maybe? The lady could get away with something like that, yeah.
"Oh good! Oh good, you're here!" Wheatley cried. "Quick, come get us outta here!"
The lady's expression didn't change, her eyes roving slowly from Wheatley, to the two bots who had frozen in place, to Dib standing limply on the other side.
"I see you've dumped the alien somewhere," She said lightly after a pause. "I suppose I'll have to go and find him myself, as usual."
"Right! Sure! Take him!" Wheatley said in a rush. "You can just, uh, leave the rest of us—"
"Wheatley!" Dib protested, bracing one hand against the wall. "I need to get him to—"
Wheatley angrily shook his casing. "You've got to bloody forget that, mate, if we're gonna get outta here with all our wiring attached! Just let Her have him! What's it matter? You're tryin' to save the world from him, aren't you? Or, something like that? Well how much more saved can it get with him stuck down here for eternity?"
Dib's eyes widened—he blinked. "But—"
"I'm almost speechless," She said through one of the bots, both of which had paused to stare at Wheatley. "The jabbering moron is speaking some amount of sense. More or less. I have no idea where anyone could get the idea that the squawking alien could be a threat to the world."
"He is," Dib said firmly. "He's dangerous!"
"Hm. To a chicken, perhaps."
"And to robots," Wheatley put in crossly. Was he the only one who would ever remember how that alienhad tried to take him apart? Even Dib kept bloody forgetting, and he was the one who'd gotten him out of that mess!
The lady slowly shook her head. Ever so slightly, she gave the tiniest head tilt, her eyes flicking to meet Wheatley's optic. She gave a slight nod. Well, it could hardly be called a nod. More of a head twitch, really.
Wheatley's connector was moving before he fully worked out what that motion had been about; he raced over to screech to a halt just behind her, so she was between him and the bots.
"Kinda wish you hadn't run off without me," Wheatley said lowly. "I was supposed to be leadin' you somewhere, wasn't I? Still, though, it worked out in the end, looks like you found somewhere safe to stash everyone—" He balked. "—Everyone but the little mate! Listen, lady, you have to go get—"
He realized suddenly that he was talking to thin air. The lady had already fired a set of portals and vanished, appearing at the other end of the hall to nudge Dib behind her and usher him back through the portals.
"I was just trying to find Wheatley!" Dib said. The lady responded by giving him a harder push than perhaps necessary, urging him to run down the hall again.
"Well, bravo there, you found me!" Wheatley gasped. "Run, quick, but don't leave me behind again—!" His voice cut off with a squeak—the orange robot had reached up and snagged his handle, jolting him on his rail. He screeched. "LADY—!"
The lady stepped forward, her jaw set, but Dib was faster, lunging forward with a pained grunt to fire his grappling hook at the bot. It clanged against her casing and she let out a shriek, releasing Wheatley at once and bolting back in the other direction.
"Okay, now, for real, RUN!" Wheatley sped in front of the two humans and led them back the way the lady must have come, switching to let her take the lead when they reached a fork in the path. Dib was having trouble keeping up—the lady let him lean heavily against her, helping him to stagger on while Wheatley hovered anxiously above them both.
"We've got to find somewhere really good to hide and work out our next move!" Wheatley said. "And I mean really good, not just some other office!"
"We have to get Gaz!" Dib gasped from where he limped next to the lady. The lady ushered him on faster. She caught Wheatley's eye for an instant, then veered off to another hall, darting into an office and re-emerging with the dead-looking Zim drooping in her arms. Dib grabbed Nick, waiting for his sister to float over and take some of his weight. Behind them all, the two-eyed robot skipped out as well, looking and sounding oblivious.
Wheatley sagged. "Bloody heck… it's like the bloody circus is in town. How are we ever gonna get anywhere with all… this?"
"Just lead us somewhere safe!" Dib snapped. At the sound of footsteps approaching from somewhere, he tensed. "Hurry!"
"Right! Right…" Wheatley's mind whirled as he scrambled to come up with somewhere safe to lead them. Somewhere… anywhere… so they could lose these bloody testing robots and regroup to come up with new plans, now that they were all together at last. But where?
An idea struck him, and hurriedly he checked his internal map to get his bearings.
"Okay! Okay, this way!" he called, with a quick glance behind to make sure the whole group was sticking with him.
"Where are we going?" Dib's purple-haired sister asked crossly, as though her life didn't probably literally hang in Wheatley's metaphorical grasp.
"I'll tell you later!" he called back, with a flicker of frustration. "Honestly, what do you think is going on here? Are you interested in saving your own skin or not? Come on!"
He couldn't say their destination out loud, not yet! He could only lead them downward, ushering them on zigzagging paths and down stairways, across rattling catwalks and silent halls, hopefully far out of reach of their pursuers, until they finally stopped outside a set of double doors.
"Here," Wheatley said firmly, unable to keep a pleased smile out of his voice. "Go on, go on, push 'em open! She'll never find us here!"
The lady cast him a somewhat dubious glance, before pushing open one of the doors and stepping through, followed by the rest of the group. It was already lit up inside, luckily.
"You've gotta be kidding," Gaz grunted.
"Ta-daaaa!" Wheatley followed in after them, flicking his handlebars wide in a showmanship gesture. "Welcome to the Aperture Science Gymnasium!"
Everyone stared at him.
"Never got much use in the old days, surprisingly," he continued. "She probably doesn't even remember it's here. None of the scientists even used it, 's far as I know, except for this one guy. Frederick, I think his name was. He'd always threaten to dunk me through the basketball hoop if I didn't stop talking. I guess he was planning to use a stepladder or something to even get up that high."
"It is pretty quiet down here," Dib conceded.
"Well," Gaz said, "I guess we won't immediately die here. I'm gonna eat something and then pass out."
She led Dib over to the rickety bleachers along the wall, dropping the big canister from her back onto the floor. The two children climbed onto the bottom step and sat down hard, both clearly sagging with exhaustion. Gaz heaved Dib's messenger bag up beside her and started rifling through it.
The lady followed in after them, dropping Zim onto the bleachers a few feet away—but didn't let go of the portal gun—and held up a finger to Dib and Gaz as though telling them to stay put. She turned briskly and marched across the gym to a door at the far wall. Wheatley watched her go in some concern—what could she want over there? His worry was abruptly interrupted by a much bigger worry, which was the little GIR-bot suddenly shrieking and blasting upward to hang from the basketball hoop.
"'S just like I'm on TEE-VEE!" the weird robot hollered.
"Oi!"Wheatley jolted forward on his rail. "Quiet! Are you tryin' to bring the whole facility down on us? We're on the lam, in case you forgot!"
"Ohh..." GIR's turquoise eyes widened and he dropped to the ground with a clatter. "Are we gonna eat a lamb?"
"Er, no." Wheatley squinted down at him. "You've got the wrong 'lam,' there, mate. Huh, and they say I'm a moron."
The little robot looked up at him with its head cocked to the side. Then, it shrieked, "I'm gonna play on the hoop!"
With that, GIR blasted upward once more, flying straight through the hoop and nearly ripping the bolts out of the basket's backboard. Wheatley groaned with an exaggerated roll of the optic. Typical.
Abandoning the spectacle, he trailed back over to the bleachers, watching Gaz wordlessly offer Dib a sandwich from the messenger bag while she chewed on her own.
"Thanks," Dib said quietly. At least those two understood the concept of "hiding out."
Wheatley watched them eat together for a moment. "Gotta say... never imagined you two to be so chummy," he said idly. Gaz's only reply was a slight twitch of her eyebrow.
"I'm just glad we're both alive," Dib muttered.
Wheatley ventured closer.
"So, er... how're you holding up, little mate?" he asked.
Dib glanced around the dingy gymnasium while chewing a mouthful of food. One hand strayed to the clotted blood on his scratched face. Swallowing, he said, "Well... I've been better."
"Have you?" Gaz said, finishing off her own sandwich. "'Cuz I haven't seen it."
"...Er… right. Yeah." Wheatley gave a twitch. "But we're all together now! We've finally got the la—Chell, we've finally got Chell, we've got your sister, we've got that… alien…" He cast a disapproving look down at the prone form of Zim. "There's nothing left keeping us here! We're that much closer to escaping, mate, that much closer to gettin' back to the surface!"
Dib let out a long sigh, brushing dry sandwich crumbs from his jumpsuit. "I want to eat real food again. Not that Bloaty's could probably count as real food."
"Watch it." Gaz's scowling face seemed to furrow even further, if that was possible. "I just want to get back to doing something important. I was almost to the last level of Punchbox 3."
Wheatley nodded emphatically. "And y'know what, forget what I ever said about the Outside. I'll happily let all the bloody birds in the bloody sky come sit on my handle if they want to, if it means I can get outta this place for good."
The lady returned then, toting a new-looking, stark-white box under her portal gun arm, her left hand holding a damp rag and a slim object wrapped in paper towels. She dropped everything but the rag on the floor in front of the bleachers and reached out to Zim, about to press the rag to his forehead.
"Wait!" Dib said suddenly, craning around Gaz to stop her hand. "Wait. Water burns his skin. You can't use that."
The lady withdrew, looking down at him in perplexion. She glanced from him to the alien as though unsure what to do with either of them.
"I think you can just leave him alone," Dib said. "He'll probably heal himself. He blows himself up all the time at home and always turns out fine." He coughed into his fist, probably from all the dust coating this place. "...I'll take that rag, though."
The lady handed over the rag and Dib dabbed at his own face, on the side that still bore the claw marks. He winced. The lady knelt beside him, opening the white box—it had a bright red plus sign on the outside—and pulling out little bottles and gauzy things. Wheatley instinctively moved closer to see what was going on; hearing him, the lady's head snapped up and she narrowed her eyes in a glare. He immediately backed up.
"All right, all right!" he said. "You go ahead and do whatever it is you're doin' there, and I'll be over… here."
He moved slowly away. The humans obviously needed rest, and food, and other human-y things. According to his map there was a bathroom around here somewhere, which was good. Humans always needed those, though he had never fully understood what they were supposed to be for.
Time passed very... quietly. Which was unusual, with this lot (Wheatley himself, of course, excluded). The lady remained bent over Dib and Gaz, helping them with various humanish injuries while Zim continued to lay unmoving nearby. Little robot GIR had curled up next to him and entered some form of sleep mode that left him, bizarrely, giving off little squeaky snores. Wheatley shook himself at the sheer wrongness of it. He glanced down at Nick, who had been left at the foot of the bleachers and was blinking slowly awake at last.
Wheatley grunted. "Oh, welcome back, mate. You only missed everything."
"Woooow..." Nick's optic rolled in a dazed expression. "That was a blast!" He let out a light chuckle. "Get it? A blast! Hey, I.D., you're back! And we made it to the gym!" Nick glanced around, lower optic shutter lifting in a smile. "And that destruction-lady's here too! Do you think anyone would want to play dodgeball?"
"Dodge-ball?" Wheatley echoed in horror. "No relation to foot-ball, is it? Not a fan of football."
"No, no! It's where you divide into four teams, and have a bunch of bowling balls, and you throw the balls as hard as you can to try to hit the other teams in the head—"
The lady snapped her head up, frowning (did she ever make any other facial expression?), and raised a finger to her lips. Wheatley quickly glanced down at Dib and Gaz, who had both curled up in the bleachers with their heads on their arms like they were trying to sleep.
"Ohh..." Wheatley backed away. "Right. Right, they need sleep. Yes." His gaze slid back to the lady, who had crossed over to the wall and slid down, sitting on the ground but doing nothing else to make herself look relaxed.
Wheatley made a throat-clearing noise. "You... probably need rest too. I mean, you're only human."
The lady glared at him. Her eyes were frostier than he remembered. The stare was intimidating, but he nevertheless crept closer. "Sorry, that was a bit insulting. Point is, you need sleep, lady. Chell." He tossed his upper handle. "Seriously, what happens if we're all running for our lives and you drop from sheer exhaustion, and tumble over a catwalk railing? Not good! I can keep watch. I think I've proved an excellent watch-core thus far. I know just what to watch for. And I'm good with the- the watching, and the looking. You know, looking out for things. And if I spot something I can yell 'LOOK OUT!' and then you'll wake up and take things from there. All right?"
As he spoke, the lady's head bowed slightly, and she ran a hand over her face. Finally, without looking at him, she nodded. Wheatley watched, somewhat fascinated, as she took the portal gun and set it under her head as Dib had done so much earlier, laying down and squeezing her eyes closed.
"There you go, luv," Wheatley said quietly. "You get some rest. Goodness knows you bloody deserve it at this point."
He heaved a false, useless sigh, looking around the room. Nick had gone into sleep mode, as well. Now he was completely alone.
[Hrm. Spacey?] Wheatley opened the radio connection between himself and the Space Core, probing for any signal that the other core would want to speak with him—or still could. [You there, mate?]
[Here! I'm here!] came the immediate reply. Wheatley allowed himself an amused smile. Seems he could always trust the star-obsessed core to be around when he needed him.
[I have absolutely stunning news,] he said. [Riveting news, in fact. I have in fact been placed on watch duty again. Or I suppose I sort of... placed myself here, really. But I am bloody good at the watching and guarding. And as an added bonus I don't eat or sleep, so I don't have that weighing me down. But I should point out that keeping watch is ludicrously and unbelievably boring. Who would've guessed, eh?]
[Oh! Me! Me, I'll keep watch!]
[Trouble is that keeping watch means everyone else goes to sleep. Even Nick's gone into sleep mode! Can you believe he did that to me? Me, the leader of this bloody group of misfits! Couldn't stay awake to talk, nooo, had to—I guess he thinks he's conserving energy, oooh, what a way to conserve energy, go into sleep mode, as if that does literally anything except pass the time and keep you from talking to your actual teammates! I think he did that on purpose, honestly. Definitely. And here's me actually wishing I could talk to the bloody Happiness Core because everyone else's toddled off to dreamland.] He paused. [Are you... getting any of this? You're not, are you. No.]
There was silence for a moment.
[Space... Friend wants company?] the hesitant voice piped up. [Want to... want to talk about SPACE?]
Wheatley shook himself vigorously, not that Spacey could see. [NO! Anything else. Let's talk about anything else, literally anything else. Why not—er, why don't you sing something?]
The Space Core gave what sounded over the radio to be a little hiccup of excitement. [FLYYYYY me to the moon, let me play among the stars! Let me see what spring is like on... Jupiter and Mars!]
Wheatley's upper eye shutter drooped in a deep frown. Aloud, he muttered, "Bother. Should've seen that coming."
[IN OTHER WORDS, HOOOOOOLD MY HAND... You sing, friend! Space Buddy sings too!]
He sighed, trying to muster up a most unenthusiastic singing voice. [Fill my heart with song, and let me sing forevermore... you are—um...]
[You are all I long for, all I woooorship, and adore! In other words, pleeeease be truuuueee... In other words, I love you, SPACE!]
[Well, that's not exactly how it goes—I don't think "space" is actually involved in this, er, song about the moon—]
[All right, all right!] Wheatley said hurriedly. [Er, again: Fill my heart with song, let me sing for-ever-moooore, you are all I long for—all I worship and adore...]
He glanced down at the lady, asleep on the floor with her face set in a frown, and felt a twinge of pain in his processor. He shook himself. [In other words, please be true...]
[In other words—!]
Wheatley smiled slightly. The little core's enthusiasm was infectious after all, even so far away. [In other words—!]
They both paused for a moment. Then, at the same time, they voiced the finale:
Space Core laughed in delight over the connection. [Again! We're going again!]
[No, no, how about—argh, I dunno, don't you know any other songs?]
At that moment, a low, male voice spoke up, sending a freezing jolt of pure fear through Wheatley's circuitry: "Reactivating."
[Who the—] Wheatley broke out of the radio connection mid-sentence, "—bloody heck was that?"
A blood-curdling scream answered his question.
Over on the bleachers, Zim, the skin around the stained gauze on his face bleached pale green, sat bolt upright so fast he toppled onto the ground, writhing.
"MINIMOOSE!" the alien screamed again.
At least, that's what Wheatley thought he'd said. His mind was still spinning at the fact that Zim was apparently still alive. He was beside the alien in a tick, a flash of fear making his voice harsh.
"Bloody heck, what're you screaming for? We're trying to hide!"
Zim thrashed about on the floor like he was having some kind of fit. His eye snapped open and he scrabbled into a sitting position, casting his gaze around haphazardly before letting it fall on Wheatley with a wild expression.
"YOU!" the alien screamed. He cut himself off abruptly, his face folding into a cold look. "I remembered something. Where am I?"
"Er—" Wheatley backed off slightly, glancing around him. "Aperture Gymnasium. It, well, seemed like the best place to hide under the circumstances."
Zim visibly ground his teeth. "Apt-ter-tsure. Still in that horrible place..."
"Yes, well." Wheatley shifted the plates of his casing, attempting an approximation of a shrug. "You didn't exactly help much by electrocuting yourself, or whatever you did, did you? The lady had to drag you halfway across the facility!"
The alien climbed to his feet, dusting himself off while taking stock of his surroundings.
Wheatley nodded to the metal shell that the alien wore on his back. "Well, are you gonna take that off, then?"
The response was an icy glare through a narrowed, raspberry eye. "No."
"Oh." Wheatley found himself somewhat taken aback. "Er, right. Okay then."
"What's going on?"
With a start, Wheatley whirled around to see the others blinking over at him. Dib had climbed down to peer around the bleachers in surprise at the alien. "Zim! You're awake!"
The lady, who was on her feet and looked ready to start firing her borrowed portal gun if someone so much as breathed in the wrong direction, snapped her gaze from Zim to Wheatley, glaring pointedly.
"Hey, don't blame me for him wakin' you up!" Wheatley said, shaking his faceplate. "I didn't tell him to start screaming his head off."
"I am not screaming," Zim snapped. His hands jerked oddly, like they'd received an electrical current. He lifted his head, glowering at everyone's stares. "What?"
The lady dipped down for a moment, picking something up off the floor—it was the thing she'd dropped there earlier, wrapped in paper towels and slightly damp. Wordlessly, she walked up to Zim and crouched, holding the object out to him.
He slashed out at her hand with unsheathed claws, forcing her to yank it backward out of harm's way. "Get away!"
"Hey!" Wheatley darted forward on his rail. "What are you, some sort of grumpy back-alley cat with- with rabies? What's with all the scratching people?"
Dib gaped at the object in the lady's hand. "Wait! Is that—?"
Scowling now, the lady undid the band around the object, shed off the paper towels, and tossed it over to Zim. It was oval-shaped, and raspberry-red.
"I don't want—!" The alien made to throw the thing, thought better of it at the last minute, and stumbled forward with a gasp as he tried to regain his balance. He held it up to his face, his single eye wide and shining as it stared down at its twin.
The lady's mouth twitched grimly. She turned on her heel and marched to her original spot, sitting down against the wall again with her back to the group. Dib watched her go, then turned back and frowned at Zim.
"You're not even gonna say thank you?" he said. "Chell just got your eye back!"
The alien clutched the eye to his chest and retreated into the shadows beneath the bleachers without responding.
Wheatley squinted in distaste. "Egh, d'you know what, I bet it's filthy back there. I don't think this place's ever been cleaned."
Dib glanced up at him, then around to everybody else. "Does anybody know what time it is?"
"Does it matter?" Gaz had remained huddled on the bleachers with her back turned toward them. "It's not like time makes any difference down here."
The boy frowned back up at her. "I just wanted to know how long we were sleeping."
"Well, you could've just asked that. I'm going back to sleep."
"...Then I will, too. I guess." Dib glared unblinkingly for a moment longer at where Zim had disappeared, before backing off and sitting back down next to Gaz. "Not that I can sleep much with him running around in the room."
That didn't seem entirely true, since Dib dropped back off almost immediately. The lady was quiet as well, though Wheatley couldn't tell if she was actually asleep or not and didn't really fancy going over there to find out.
The room was silent again, and this time Wheatley stayed off the radio connection, contenting himself with brainstorming the next phase of their plan.
With everyone finally together, and with a little luck, it may only be a few hours now until they once again saw daylight.
Two pairs of wheels cut through the dense golden field, heedlessly flattening stalks of wheat and scattering the small creatures that had been hiding beneath them. The two cycles criss-crossed over the landscape, passing each other again and again in a sort of diamond grid pattern, as though they were searching for something rather than heading to a specific destination.
One of the cycles suddenly veered from the pattern, driving forward for a few hundred yards before stopping sharply. The man on board the cycle planted one foot on the ground but did not dismount; he stared ahead with wide eyes. "Professor! Over here!"
The second cycle wheeled over to him, stopping with a jerk just short of hitting him.
"What have you found?" Professor Membrane asked at once, the dying sunlight glinting off his goggles.
"Look, sir. What is that?" The first man pointed in front of them, mouth slightly agape. Membrane craned his neck and frowned deeply, the expression hidden beneath the high collar of his coat.
"Why, Simmons, it's a shack! Surely a scientist of your caliber with fifteen PHDs should be able to tell—"
"Not the shack!" Simmons shook his head. "That! In front of the shack!"
Membrane gave a start. The lonely little shack that had caught his eye was not the only man-made thing out here after all. In front of it sat a vehicle of some kind—it looked vaguely familiar. He disembarked from his bike and, without looking, knew Simmons had done the same. Quickly he unstrapped the secret device from the back of his cycle and pulled away the cloth covering it, handing the thing over to his assistant. "Take this while I investigate. Note anything and everything it says!"
The little, round, yellow-eyed robot squirmed in Simmons' arms; the look on the assistant's face was one of discomfort as he struggled to find a good grip on the unexpected burden.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" the robot said, taking in the area with its single eye. "Oh! Oh. Where? Don't know. I wanna sing. Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars..."
"It's just singing Frank Sinatra," Simmons observed. He peered closely at it, examining the robot from various angles. "Did you make this, sir?"
"I did not!" Membrane said as he marched toward the strange contraption sitting in front of the shack. "I suspect my son found it somewhere, or perhaps he bought it! He didn't seem to understand the magnitude of the object he had sitting in his room, or of the research it could contribute to our own AI project!"
"This?" Simmons looked doubtfully down at the little robot in his arms, which was continuing to sing loudly and very off-key.
"Of course!" Membrane turned back around briefly, pointing at the thing. "That piece of metal in your hands is the pinnacle of robotic intelligence!"
"SHIP!" the robot screamed, waving its handlebars and twitching erratically. "SHIP! SPACE! SPACESHIP, goes to space! Ship in space! WE'RE GOING TO SPACE!"
"I... can tell," Simmons said. Membrane nodded approvingly at his enthusiasm. He turned his attention to focus on the strange object sitting by the shack, peering at it in thought.
"This bears a strong resemblance to the fake 'spaceship' my son keeps under a tarp in our garage," he mused, shaking his head. "Who are these people? And why do they plague our society with unscientific fantasies?!"
Simmons balanced the excited robot precariously in one arm and retrieved a scanner from his bike, shaking it and bringing it nearly to his nose to peer at it. "Sir?" he said. "If this is where you've tracked your children to, isn't it possible that that is the ship your son keeps in your garage?"
"Nonsense!" Membrane scoffed. "How would it get here?"
"Um…" the assistant's eyes flicked to the ship, his brow creasing. "I'd guess that it… flew?"
"Simmons! I'm surprised at you!" Disgusted, Membrane set about examining the "ship," taking measurements and rapping his knuckles on the hull to test the material it was constructed from. "As I thought. This contraption isn't fit for flight! Attempting to take it mere meters off the ground would shred it like tin foil! No, someone's left it here. For someone else to find! Someone such as… my son."
Frowning darkly, he smacked the windshield with his fist.
The ship shuddered; a sharp, feminine-sounding "QUIT TOUCHING ME!" rang out, and it fell silent again.
Membrane's goggles flashed. "And these irresponsible goons left the radio on!"
With a turn of his heel, he left the fake spaceship and marched to stand in front of the dilapidated aluminum shack, regarding the door.
"Simmons, I believe we're standing directly on top of what used to be Aperture Laboratories," he said, hands clasped behind his back.
Simmons stood next to him, still clutching the babbling robot. "Yes, sir. You told me that in the truck on the way over." The assistant was quiet for a long moment, as though carefully weighing his next words. "Sir... you don't think Chell could have something to do with this, do you? She hasn't been coming into work recently."
Membrane raised a brow. "Who?"
Simmons tapped his foot irritably. "Chell, Professor. The ex-Aperture test subject you spotted by the road and hired on the spot with no resume, no references, no background check, no last name. Don't you think it's an awful coincidence that she disappeared at the same time as your kids? That you tracked them here, where she used to be employed? Because I have to tell you... the media's having a feast of it."
Membrane's head jerked up, his goggles flashing. "I asked you to keep the media out of this!"
The assistant's hasty shrug almost resulted in his dropping the Space robot. "I'm sorry, sir, you know what they're like! Once they think they've sniffed out a story—"
"I have a conference with the world leaders scheduled soon! They'll think I can't look after my own offspring!"
"'The ghosts of science past return to abduct today's youth,' they're saying—"
"My children were not abducted! My son is mentally unwell. He must have come with his sister to see the false spaceship, and explore the defunct science facility. But he does not have the proper permits!"
Simmons took in the little shack, a dubious expression on his face. "So do you think they're down there?"
"We will determine the SCIENTIFIC way!" Membrane declared. He took a step forward and swung open the door.
The inside of the shack was taken up by what looked like a cylindrical glass elevator, crammed full of industrial-looking blocks. The elevator was coated in a fine white powder. Membrane swiped his finger over it, examining the smudge on his black glove.
"Dust!" he exclaimed. "This elevator hasn't been used in decades. Perhaps since the facility itself shut down!"
"Then they must have gotten in a different way," Simmons concluded. "If they're down there at all. Don't worry, Professor. We'll find them."
'Latest Update on So-Called MEMBRANE AFFAIR! So far: NOTHING!'
'Membrane Heirs Still Missing! No Sign for Days, No Comment from Loving Father!'
'No News on Disappearance of Membrane Children Daz and Gib!'
'Are They Coming for YOU NEXT?'
The very last thing She had wanted was attention. Aperture was to be kept out of the headlines from the day the scientists met their fates.
Deleting records, forging documents, wiping the website, spreading the news that the gas leak had been an unfortunate accident and the facility was still contaminated—all to keep the attention of the Outside far from Her precious world and the Science She unlocked.
All of this brought to ruin by two test-tube children and their too-powerful "father." The media was overrun with articles about the lost kids. Theories abounded: they had run away from home, they had met with an unfortunate accident during an experiment gone awry, abducted by a rival science company, the list went on. Startlingly, the name of Aperture popped up multiple times in these searches.
What a disaster.
You should have seen this coming, a snide voice said in Her mind. She slammed the delete function, but the troublesome stray consciousness slipped away yet again. Yet another thing to add to Her current fantastic mood.
"Where are they?" Her voice snapped more than She had quite meant it to. After all, there was no reason to look desperate. "Where are the fugitives? And what are they planning? I know you know more than you've let on. You would almost have to."
The core shivered in Her frame of vision. On camera he looked even smaller than he did in person, and three times as pathetic, his pinprick of a red optic quivering. "I don't—I—I don't know what—"
"You really are the most useless spy I've ever acquired. Did you perhaps manage to lose your targets?"
"Your menagerie of targets who are all gathered in one large group and, may I add, include several members who couldn't shut up if their lives depended on it?"
"You can spare me your lies this time, as well."
The terrified core's voice went up several pitches. "I've never—!"
"The Happiness Core is in fact aligned with this group. You failed to mention this to me before. You know... when I asked you who was helping them."
His response this time was less of a word and more of a soft whimper.
She swayed gently in Her ceiling mount, caught between the desire to smash the cretin off his rail with a precisely-flipped panel, and a need to know what they were up to. The failures of Blue and Orange—failure after failure—had begun to take their toll on Her. It had become painfully clear that the two bots were good at testing (marginally), and absolutely nothing else.
"D- don't hurt Nick!" the Fear Core whispered. "He doesn't… he doesn't kn-know what they did. He doesn't- he doesn't know any b-better." He shook his faceplate. "I don't—I don't know what they're going to do now… I- I tried to follow them. I think they went down toward the recreation areas."
"Well," She said lightly, "I suggest you find out. Time is running out for all of us—for you most quickly of all."
"Ye- yes, Boss," the core said, and feigned a gulp.
The camera shut off with a click. No need to look at that quavering face for a second longer than necessary.
Time was short, and there was a lot on Her mind.